Friday, January 23, 2009

The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead (book review)

The "rules" for Annie's What's in a name-2 challenge specify that one book have a "medical condition" in its title. I'd say that "dead" qualifies. The book's author, David Shields, is sandwiched between a 14-year-old daughter and a 97-year-old father. In The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead, Shields considers human life in terms of our physical condition, with medical facts discussed and interspersed with stories of his daughter and, mainly, his father. The book is written in four sections: Infancy and Childhood, Adolescence, Adulthood and Middle Age, and Old Age and Death. Several chapters appear in more than one section, including those on "Decline and Fall," "Boys vs. Girls," "Sex and Death," and "Hoop Dreams." (That's "hoop" as in basketball not needlework.)

I found the book very easy to read, though at times it was downright disheartening. As a 52-year-old trying to increase her explosive speed in a martial art, I really hated to read things such as "When you're 60, you're 20 percent less strong than you were in middle age; at 70, you're 40 percent less strong. You lose more strength in the muscles of your legs than in your hands and arms. You also tend to lost your fast-twitch abilities--a sprinter's contractions--much more rapidly than your slow-twitch abilities--a walker's contractions."

At other times, though, it was downright funny. I think my hands down favorite passage in this regard was a somewhat Freudian take on the movie Spider-Man, specifically, "Peter's change from dweeb to spider is explicitly analogous to his transformation from boy to man." And the current winner in the "Damn! I wish I'd thought of that phrase!" contest is the bold part of this paragraph (and I hope this isn't too risque for some readers, since it could be interpreted as for mature audiences only):

"The first time Spider-Man rescues M.J., she says to her boyfriend, Harry, that it was 'incredible.' 'What do you mean "incredible"?' he keeps asking her. The second time Spider-Man rescues M.J., she asks him, 'Do I get to say thank you this time?' and, pulling up his mask past his lips, passionately kisses him, sending both of them into rain-drenched ecstasy. The script makes painfully clear that Peter's newfound prowess is procreation or, more precisely, onanism: 'He wiggles his wrist, tries to get the goop to spray out, but it doesn't come.' All three times Spider-Man rescues M.J., they're wrapped in a pose that looks very much like missionary sex: Spider-Man on a mission. As Peter Parker, his peter is parked; as Spider-Man, he gets to have the mythic carnival ride of sex-flight without any of the messy emotional cleanup afterward."

Some of the medical information was so wonderful I can't wait to work it into conversation someday: "Your taste buds regenerate; cells within the taste buds die every ten days and are completely replaced. Even if a nerve that forms taste buds is destroyed, other buds will form around the new nerve that replaces it. However, it takes more molecules of a certain substance on your tongue for you to recognize the flavor later in adulthood. As you get older, you enjoy food less."

Woven into the story of how we age physically is the story of a family, principally one son's relationship with a father who just happens to be bipolar (though Shields uses the term "manic-depressive"). Although Shields tells many a tale in which his father doesn't necessarily appear in the best light, he does the same with himself. Shields says of his father in the prologue that "I seem to have an Oedipal urge to bury him in a shower of death data. Why do I want to cover my dad in an early shroud? He's strong and he's weak and I love him and I hate him and I want him to live forever and I want him to die tomorrow."

Is this a book you will find entertaining but also thought-provoking? Yes. Is this a book that you will be less for not reading? No. I would give few books that high praise. If you want to learn a bit more about how your body (and, to an extent your mind) changes and adapts, for better or for worse, as you age, this book is certainly one way to accomplish that.


Debi said...

This actually sounds pretty interesting...but ultimately too depressing to actually read. I can already see how much I'm falling apart.

Janet said...

I agree with Debi. :-) But thanks for the review.